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After writing this comment I thought of the 1933 novel When Worlds Collide co-written by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer.

South African astronomer Sven Bronson discovers that a pair of rogue planets, Bronson Alpha and Bronson Beta, will soon enter the solar system. In eight months, they will pass close enough to cause catastrophic damage to the Earth. Sixteen months later, after swinging around the Sun, Bronson Alpha will return to pulverize the Earth and leave. It is hoped that Bronson Beta will remain and assume a stable orbit.

Wikipedia describes the catastrophic damage from the first pass in the novel as

Tidal waves sweep inland at a height of 750 feet (230 m), volcanic eruptions and earthquakes add to the deadly toll, and the weather runs wild for more than two days. As a token of things to come, Bronson Alpha grazes and destroys the Moon.

Is it known if the authors drew upon the known science of the day to hypothesize what the effects of a planetary near approach would be like? I know it's nearly 100 years ago, but I'm curious how they came up with the science behind the induced tidal waves, and volcanos and earthquakes. The Moon grazing means the approach of at least one of the planets to Earth was less than 400,000 km, so if they'd assumed a mass for the planets, they could estimate quantitatively the forces on the Earth.

The fact that Bronson Alpha and Beta split up and have different, well described orbits suggests they'd certainly put some thought into the orbital mechanics, but I don't know if the orbits are realistic, nor if it was Earth's gravity or the interaction with the Moon that split Alpha and Beta. Is it known to what level of detail they had pursued all of the physics involved in the catastrophic damage and planet trajectories?

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    @user14111 I've added a bounty, any further recollections? – uhoh Jan 25 at 0:23
  • @user14111 aha, a datapoint! If you can find a way to post a quote and cite the essay, either in a partial answer or comment, I would really appreciate it! I'd love to read anything about it possible. Thanks! – uhoh Jan 25 at 3:09
  • @user14111 great stuff, thank you! If nothing more definitive turns up in the next 2 days I would like to be able to accept this as an answer, as long as a source for the Moskowitz quotes can be cited. – uhoh Jan 25 at 3:28
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+100

Sam Moskowitz, prominent old-time fan and historian of science fiction, wrote an essay on Philip Wylie in his Studies in Science Fiction series. Titled "Philip Wylie: The Saccharine Cynic", it was originally published in Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, September 1960, available at the Internet Archive; it was reprinted (without the subtitle) in Science Fantasy, October 1961, also available at the Internet Archive.

According to Moskowitz, Wylie considered himself a stickler for scientific accuracy (his collaborator Edwin Balmer not so much), and consulted some unnamed friends at Caltech about the physics of When Worlds Collide.

A bug on astronomy, Balmer had roughed out a sequence of events for a novel where two planets enter our solar system from outer space. One will strike the earth with resultant mutual destruction. The only chance man has for survival is to build space ships and transfer a few thousand men and women to the second invading world — which will take up an orbit around the sun — before it moves out of range. He presented this idea to Wylie and found a kindred spirit. Like a child with a new toy, Philip Wylie assembled his physicist friends at Cal Tech and mathematically mapped out the scientific elements by which this feat of [spacial] leap frog could be accomplished. The time lost in the advancement of atomics was unquestionably science fiction's gain.

The collaboration, written as These Shall Not Die, was retitled When Worlds Collide by Donald Kennicott and opened in the September, 1932 issue of BLUE BOOK.

[. . . .]

There seemed no question that a third book in the series, solving the riddle of the new planet's missing inhabitants was the next logical step, and indeed a plot was outlined by Balmer but vetoed by Wylie. Every word of When Worlds Collide had been written by Wylie and it had been published as written. Similarly, Wylie wrote all of the text of the sequel, but before press time Balmer made some alterations that affected scientific plausibility. Wylie, a purist at science fiction nurtured in the tradition of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells and Hugo Gernsback, was disturbed by these changes. Balmer's plot outline of the third book would have been difficult to validate on the basis of known facts. Wylie contended that the success of the first two volumes was predicated, to a large extent, upon the high degree of respect shown for scientific accuracy. Therefore, though he continued to collaborate with Balmer on adventure and detective novels, he refused to give literary substance to the projected third in the When Worlds Collide series.

  • I don't care how many "physicists" worked on the math; the trajectory fails simple tests of common sense. 1I/2017 U1 ('Oumuamua) had a velocity at 1AU of c.50km/s and spent a total of just 2 months at a distance of less than 1 AU from the sun. The Bronson bodies already had a velocity at Saturn's orbital distance of at least 80km/s (Ch.3, from Neptune to Saturn in about 11 mo) and so could not have taken more than 2 months between crossings of Earth's orbit. – DavidW Jan 25 at 19:56
  • @DavidW this is really intriguing! I'm going to have to locate a copy in Taipei and read it now. – uhoh Jan 26 at 14:38

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